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Books of the year from Church Times readers

26 November 2021

Keen readers told the Church Times about their favourites

Andrew Rumsey

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in time by Craig Brown (Fourth Estate, £9.99 (£8.99); 978-0-00-834003-2)

UNEARTHING fresh stories about The Beatles isn’t easy, given how intensively their cultural furrow has been ploughed by writers over the years. Craig Brown succeeds by adopting a format that both plays to his own strengths (short, wry pieces — 150 of them) and befits his subject-matter — the flashbulb impact and experience of the band, as it happened.

The result is a fascinating album of snapshots which enables us to see the familiar foursome from new angles — some hilarious, others unsettling, but all of them compelling. Brown’s writing is irresistibly good as ever and canters along like a pop song. Whether you’re a Beatles fan or not, this book is a joy.

Dr Andrew Rumsey is the Bishop of Ramsbury in the diocese of Salisbury. His latest book, published this month, is English Grounds (SCM Press, 2021).


Alan Billings

Karl Barth: A life in conflict by Christiane Tietz (OUP, £25 (£22.50); 978-0-19-885246-9)

WORKING from home has meant that I could read books I wouldn’t normally have time for. I re-read Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans (1918), which I last read as an undergraduate fifty years ago. This time, however, I did it alongside Christiane Tietz’s Karl Barth: A life in conflict (Books, 28 May). I realise now what I didn’t then, that a commentary needs contextualising as much as an original text.

I also re-discovered — for my grandchildren — Florence Parry Heide’s The Shrinking of Treehorn (Holiday House, £14.99; 978-0-8234-4703-9) — about a little boy who shrinks, and his parents don’t notice. They will love its irony and dry humour.

The Revd Dr Alan Billings is the Police
and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire.


John Barton

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Cornerstone, £8.99 (£8.09); 978-0-09955878-1)

THE plot of Amor Towles’s second novel is implausible, and might seem likely to feel claustrophobic. After the Russian Revolution, an aristocrat is sentenced to lifelong incarceration in a luxury Moscow hotel, on pain of death if he ever leaves.

Once the premise is accepted, however, the novel flows in a marvellously life-affirming way. The hero develops a rich life in the hotel, befriending all the staff; eventually he adopts a child, and he meets old acquaintances, some of whom have suffered worse than he has at the hands of the state. The ending must be concealed, but it closes off a luminous, humane, and often very amusing novel.

Amor Towles’s latest novel
The Lincoln Highway is reviewed here.

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, in the University of Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest. His most recent book is A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths (Allen Lane, 2019).


Richard Chartres

Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures by Merlin Sheldrake (Vintage £10.99 (£9.89); 978-1-78470-827-6)

SOCIAL distancing encouraged me to spend more time in the woods close to home. Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life taught me just how much I was not seeing on my walks on the surface. The theme of the book is how fungi animate our world and are shaping the future.

Merlin is a gifted storyteller and musician, as well as a scientific frontiersman and guide to the wonders of the world beneath our feet. Besides writing a glorious chapter on truffles, he reveals complex subterranean networks that can range for miles, linking plants and trees in what has been described as the “wood wide web”.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.


Angela Tilby

Material Girls by Kathleen Stock (Little, Brown, £16.99 (£15.29); 978-0-349-72660-1)

THERE has been huge controversy about the author of this book, who stood down as Professor of Philosophy at Sussex University, after three years of bullying and harassment about her supposed transphobic views.

I was expecting it to be a tough read, but was surprised and delighted by the sheer clarity, force, and accessibility of the argument. Here is philosophy being put to public use, in the defence of reason, science, common sense, and women’s rights. And Dr Stock is not a transphobe.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford and a Canon of Honour of Portsmouth Cathedral.


Ronald Corp

The Saga of Gösta Berling by Selma Lageröf (Penguin Classics, £9.99 (£8.99); 978-0-14-310590-9)

IN the many-layered The Saga of Gösta Berling (1892) by the Swedish writer Selma Lageröf, we enter a world partly real and partly fantastical. The handsome (anti)-hero is an unfrocked priest who is “rescued” by the mistress of the Ekeby estate, an ironworks and home to a rowdy group of veterans of the Napoleonic wars. The saga tells of Gosta’s adventures as their leader and his affairs with the various women in his life.

Lageröf has a vivid imagination, and there are many memorable scenes, including a nail-biting chase across the ice, in which Gosta is pursued by wolves.

The Revd Ronald Corp, an assistant priest at St Alban’s, Holborn, in London, is a composer and conductor.


Mark Oakley

Chaucer: A European life by Marion Turner (Princeton University Press, £20 (£18); 978-0-691-21015-5)

THIS is the first full biography of Chaucer in a generation, and the first written by a woman. Informative, imaginative, intelligent, and fun, Turner’s book is a shrewd and extensive take on Chaucer’s life, and an illuminating and textured reading of his work.

Turner is a brilliant raconteur, and, as we follow the life of the Vintner’s son who became the innovative poet, we are vividly immersed in the world, communities, and daily lives of 14th-century Europe. To use Chaucer’s words, it is a book full of “revelry and grace”.

The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.


Rachel Mann

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (Harper Collins, £10.99 (£9.89); 978-0-00-810598-3)

THE detective fiction of the 1920s and ’30s, dominated by the likes of Christie, Sayers, and Anthony Berkeley, justly deserves the title “the golden age”. Edwards’s book, which explores the authorial back stories behind the fiction, is as sparkling, moreish, and intoxicating as fine champagne.

Not only does Edwards reveal the true-crime influences that shaped the plots of Christie’s and others’ most beloved novels, but he expands our understanding of authors whose lives often had more plot twists than their fiction. The insight into the messy and brilliant life of the deeply religious Dorothy L. Sayers is worth the price alone.

Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Bury, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.


Eve Poole

Modern Manners: Instructions for living fabulously well by contributors from The Gentlewoman (Phaidon, £19.95 (£17.95); 978-1-83866-356-8)

CHRISTMAS is all about lavatory books and books that impress in the spare room; so my current favourite is The Gentlewoman’s stylish compendium Modern Manners. It’s a beautifully designed treasury with short pieces on topics that range from what to do about tipping to the merits of portable coat-hangers, with excursions into the perfect out-of-office message, the art of regifting, and the allure of being a hermit.

The book draws a distinction between etiquette and manners, arguing that etiquette is about rules that trip people up, whereas manners are about making other people feel comfortable. It’s a treat.

Dr Eve Poole, until recently Third Church Estates Commissioner, is a specialist in leadership, and the author of
Leadersmithing (Bloomsbury, 2017).


John Perumbalath

Rumi: Selected poems, translated by Coleman Barks (Penguin, £8.99 (£8.09); 978-0-14-044953-2)

THE combination of mystical richness and bold adaptations of poetic forms is the key to the continuing popularity of this 13th-century Persian Sufi poet. Rumi’s wisdom leaps off the pages into our hearts and invites us to a journey of tolerance, goodness, charity, awareness through love, and the experience of God. It is thematically organised in 27 sections: one can start and read wherever, without having to go from page 1 to the end.

Rumi comes across as a doctor of soul for our time, helping us to cultivate heart, passion, and transformation. These poems are sensual, celebratory, and pensive.

Dr John Perumbalath is the Bishop of Bradwell, in the diocese of Chelmsford.


Jo Kelly-Moore

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-4722-2382-1)

SET in 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon and London, and framed around the lives of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway and their family, especially their twin children Hamnet and Judith, Hamnet is a magical and raw exploration of the extremities of human experience — from birth to death, all that lies between, and what might lie beyond (Reading groups, 1 October).

One of those novels that you don’t want to put down, it is a perfect gift and holiday read. Highly recommended.

The Ven. Jo Kelly-Moore is to be installed as the Dean of St Albans next week.

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